Sprint 15: Francis Maude speech

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude discussed the progress made in reforming and improving digital government.

It’s great to have the chance to be with you, to celebrate some of the things that you’ve done and the things that have been achieved, and to reflect a bit on some of the things that are yet to come.

In December, we were privileged to host in London representatives from the 5 most advanced digital governments in the world for the first annual D5 conference.

We were hosting and leading the agenda – but actually the fact that the UK was even counted credibly among the 5 leading digital governments was a real achievement and shows just how far we’ve come over the past 5 years.

Five years ago, if you’d typed a simple term like ‘maternity leave’ into Google the results would have pointed you toward dozens of different government websites.

Now there’s just one.

Five years ago, if you’d wanted to apply for a student loan, you had to print off a form and send it by post – and that was the ‘online’ service – it was more dead tree than digital.

Now, these services are digital by default.

And 5 years ago, we were spending more than any almost any other government in the world on IT, but our rankings for effectiveness were low and falling.

Today we’re cutting costs, we’re embracing innovation and we’re opening government business to suppliers of all sizes. It’s all part of this government’s long-term economic plan to make sure we live within our means and we can meet the needs of our public.

Revolution not evolution

I’m delighted Martha-Lane Fox can be with us this afternoon to celebrate these achievements. When we formed the coalition government back in 2010, we knew we had to do things differently. We wanted Britain to be a leading digital government, so I asked Martha to conduct a review and she said we needed to do things completely differently. And that’s what we’re doing. We haven’t yet done it all, but we’ve started.

We made a virtue out of necessity. Not only saving money but kick-starting a transformation to the whole way government works – designing services that are not only cheaper but simpler and faster; more convenient, and more responsive.

International recognition

Of course, the D5 isn’t the only measure of our success. The New Zealand government has taken the source code from GOV.UK and used it for their own website. The Washington Post hailed the UK “as setting the gold standard of digital government”. The Obama administration has created a digital service explicitly modelled on GDS – right down to using the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters.

When I visited them they told me that whenever anyone asks them about what they’re doing they say “we’re just copying what the Brits have done”…to which the reply is “oh, that must be fine then”.

Last month, I was emailed by Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications in the Australian government who said:

Francis, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery you should feel very flattered.

So we are leading the world in this.

We’ve learnt a huge amount from other nations – I’m delighted that we’re joined today by representatives of the Estonian government, who will be hosting next year’s D5. They have been an inspiration to us. We’re also joined by representatives from the French government, who have been strong allies on the issue of transparency, joining the Open Government Partnership – I think is today the beginning of an ‘entente digitale’.

So I’d like to thank everyone who has helped to transform digital government over the past 5 years. Because of the work you all do ‘government IT’ has gone from a byword for failure to being a shining example of public sector innovation and reform.

I remember when I took a team of senior officials to the west coast of America in April last year: we visited Facebook’s headquarters. There was a poster that said: “they say that time changes things – actually, you have to change them yourself.”

So whether editing code at your desk or travelling the country listening and learning about the needs of people using our services, these achievements are your achievements. You are the people that made this happen.

I know the hours can be long and many of you could probably earn much more elsewhere, but you have I hope the satisfaction of knowing you are making an historic difference; a world leading difference; a difference that improves the lives of our citizens every day. And that’s not to be sneezed at. It’s not trivial.

You’ve shown actually what a civil service should be and can be at its best: skilled, innovative, challenging, disruptive. There was a time when the word ‘disruptive’ in the civil service was a bad word, but now it’s a good word. We want people who are challenging and want things to be different. I always remember the sign on the wall of the civil service college in Singapore which simply read “every public servant has a duty to challenge existing ways of doing things.”

We need a culture right across the civil service and the public sector where people don’t just have permission to challenge existing ways of doing things, but a responsibility to challenge. Always to be questing to the next thing – how do we make it better, how do we iterate, how do we improve, how do we innovate….always to be restless about continuous improvement, because otherwise we’re going backwards.

Every organisation is either getting better or worse. If you think you’re staying the same, you’re getting worse. We have to be relentlessly questing for the improvement. And that’s what you’re doing.

And ultimately, it’s not just about spreadsheets and page hits. It’s about making a meaningful difference to people’s lives.

The new online application for the carers allowance is a case in point. Carers are very busy people. Every broken link, every word of jargon, every minute wasted searching for an answer, is a burden they could do without. They’re looking after people with serious illnesses. They deserve services that are quick and easy to use, designed around their needs, not the government’s needs. And that’s what we’ve delivered.

Latest progress

So where are we now? The transition to GOV.UK is complete. Over 300 websites transferred to just one. Last October, we celebrated the 1 billionth visit; saving taxpayers £60 million a year by comparison with what went before.

Eight of the biggest transactional services, like managing your tax and registering to vote, are now all digital.

The vehicle management service is the latest to go public of the 16 now in public beta testing.

There are currently 18 million annual transactions relating to vehicle records. That’s 18 million pieces of paper! No wonder when I first went to DVLA they pointed to the dock where twice a day an articulated lorry arrived full of post. It doesn’t need to be done like that way and increasingly it isn’t: it can be done online. Whether you’ve bought a family car or you run a corporate fleet of vehicles, it means less time, less hassle, less paper, less cost.

We’ve already said goodbye to the tax disc and the days of the paper driving licence are numbered. We’re building a properly digital government for the future, cutting costs and ensuring that millions of people and businesses can benefit from better services.

And we’re helping more people go online so they can use these services. Our aim is that all those who can go online are online by 2020. And for those who can’t, there will always be an assisted digital option available.

Procurement, growth and SMEs

We’ve also changed the whole approach to how government buys and supports IT. Government contracts were too long, too big and too opaque. Now they’re smaller, shorter and more open, and that’s only the beginning. It’s our hope that by 2020 the remaining outsourced legacy technology contracts that are still in place will have gone.

Through the Digital Marketplace public sector organisations can purchase cloud-based off-the-shelf services on a pay-as-you-go basis, much like the iTunes or app store. This has helped open up government contracts to a constellation of new suppliers of all sizes, and all locations, who were previously almost deliberately excluded from being able to bid, let alone win, government contracts.

Just 2 weeks ago I visited Advent IM in Halesowen on the recommendation of the local MP James Morris – a 12-strong cyber security consultancy who have won business through our online G-Cloud. 87% of suppliers on the G-Cloud are small and medium sized enterprises, many of which had never done business with government before.

DVLA reckon they saved almost £2.25 million on creating the new driver record service when they worked with Hampshire-based SME Skyscape through the G-Cloud. But as well as getting a better deal for taxpayers, we’re also helping some of the most promising tech firms to grow. Cheshire-based Ixis saw a profit increase of 50% after winning contracts with government agencies and local authorities through the G-Cloud.

Today I can announce that last year total sales through the G-Cloud across the public sector reached over £430 million, with around half of this going to SMEs. It’s no wonder the UK government has been described as “Europe’s best start-up”.

And we’re lucky to have pioneering tech businesses – not just in London, but right across the country – from Silicon Fen in Cambridgeshire and Silicon Glen in Scotland; to Belfast’s Silicon Dock and Birmingham’s Silicon Canal. Back in 2010 our suppliers were concentrated around London and a couple of locations in the south east. Now they’re spread right across the country. Check out our refreshed online suppliers map to see exactly where they are. And it’s growing all the time.

Supporting the digital economy

Last summer the Prime Minister asked me to chair the Digital Task Force, with Baroness Shields and Ed Vaizey at DCMS, which works to strengthen the UK’s position as a world-leading digital economy. One area of focus is digital and telecommunications infrastructure.

Each year we spend £1.5 billion on public sector networks. We wanted to know whether the taxpayer could get better value, so we asked the Taskforce to explore the capacity and capability that all those masts, fibre and cables around the country provide us with.

To be honest we didn’t know some of it existed. The reason we found out… the IT controls. We found out that just in the transport sector alone, Network Rail and the Highways Agency owns some 13,000 miles of mostly fibre – some copper – and it’s massively underused. Paid for by the taxpayer, it’s a public asset and it’s not being used nearly enough.

So we’ve mapped it. It’s not complete yet by any means. As we so often find, it’s not perfect. But today we’re publishing the first ever comprehensive map of public sector telecommunications and digital infrastructure. Not surprisingly, it shows surplus capacity which has been left untapped for far too long.

Public sector organisations have traditionally developed their own bespoke networks and technology, giving rise to duplication and under-utilisation. And that offers enormous potential.

By working more closely across the public sector we can deliver greater efficiencies, greater connectivity and more effective business solutions.

So for example, we’ve identified over 1000 sites where placing mobile telephone masts on government buildings could help boost signal reception in heavily built up areas and bring in revenue for the taxpayer.

We’re also looking at whether using the existing Highways Agency emergency mobile communications network could help us replace the emergency phone boxes you see at the side of the motorways.

Last December we started exploring whether using the fibre optic capabilities that are used to control unmanned onshore wind farms could boost broadband connectivity in rural areas.

Where we’ve got these public assets we need to liberate them to be used for public benefit. This infrastructure has been developed at the taxpayer’s expense and yet previous governments hadn’t even bothered to check what capacity the public sector already owned.

So we’re putting this right, to make maximum use of a significant national asset.

Next steps

So there’s a lot been done, but we must continue our efforts to rebuild the economy and focus resources on frontline services.

In December, we set out plans to make a further £10 billion of efficiency savings between 2017 and 2018 and an additional £15 to £20 billion for 2019 to 2020.

Digital has a big contribution to make.

Government as a platform

One of the ways we will do this is by creating cross government platforms for services that every department and agency can use. Before the last election, we were wasting money because departments thought they were unique and distinctive and convinced themselves that only the most expensive bespoke systems would do.

But it’s nonsense.

If one department needs a service for publishing information to the web, so will other departments – so why should they all pay money to different people to achieve the same end? Why not just build a publishing platform they can all use and share?

That was the principle behind GOV.UK. The same was true of Digital Marketplace and GOV.UK Verify. Common systems that can be used by departments and agencies across Whitehall, removing duplication, minimising risks and cutting costs. Numerous other services across government that could – and should – share common platforms.

So I can confirm today that we’ll develop prototypes for at least 3 cross-departmental platforms early in the next Parliament, starting with a common payments platform, with common systems for appointment bookings and messaging likely to follow.

Right now there are hundreds of agencies and arms-length bodies with their own payment system. This makes no sense. If you buy a bicycle or book on Amazon, you pay the same way. There’s no reason for government to be any different. The system should be the same whether you’re paying for a driving licence or a fishing licence, because it’s simpler and cheaper that way.

For those less confident internet surfers, common platforms means learning things only once. It also allow us to take better advantage of technological advances, without having to rebuild numerous different systems over and over again.

This could have potential right throughout the public sector – so you could pay your council tax or residents parking charge through the same system.

And to boost innovation, we will open up the secure interfaces – the APIs – of our digital services. This will allow others to integrate their services with ours – so you could, for example, buy your car tax at the same time as your car insurance.

If we can do all of this at scale we can dramatically improve public services and deliver them at a fraction of the current cost.

Digital technology and skills

We’re also bringing the latest equipment and software to civil servants, as well as introducing networked practices like Google Apps to make it easier for civil servants to work together and to communicate with the public. We’re expecting this to deliver a minimum of 40% cost savings on IT across government.

Cabinet Office has led the way. And many thanks to Richard Heaton and those who have led the project. Now we’ve got 2,500 people using modern systems.

Back in 2010 when I arrived in the Cabinet Office the IT to be so bad that I almost threw it out the window. I insisted on having wi-fi installed and now it’s available throughout the department, so everyone can pick up their laptop and work flexibly.

I now have a shiny new iPhone rather than the Blackberry that I couldn’t even bear to look at.

What’s our mantra? Technology at work that’s at least as good as you use at home. Doesn’t sound that demanding when you put it like that. A long way to go, but progress, we’ve shown we can do it. Better equipment, less cost – what’s not to like about that?

I’m not alone. I was told about one civil servant in my department who said upon getting her new laptop:

This is the first time I’ve felt valued as a civil servant; for once they haven‘t just given us crap, they’ve given us something good.

Now I found that really heart-warming. That’s what it’s about technology that helps people do their jobs better and doesn’t get in the way.

But better technology must be matched by better skills. Twenty five years of continual outsourcing has meant we’ve lost too much of our in-house capability, but we’re now beginning to reverse this decline.

Look at HMRC Digital Delivery Centre in Newcastle – making use of regional talent and developing services in-house. DVLA have a similar unit in Swansea. There are others too.

So GDS has created a ripple effect through the civil service.

It’s a glimpse of the kind of cultural transformation that needs to happen across the public sector.


Now we’re at the British Film Institute, so I hope I’ll be forgiven for ending by talking briefly about television. Some of you may have seen recently the new US version of House of Cards. My office gave the box set to me for Christmas. Something to learn about how politics should work…riveting.

Kevin Spacey tells a great story about how he and the other producers pitched the idea to the US networks. Traditional networks wanted to see a pilot episode first. But Spacey felt the story was too complex to encapsulate in a single episode.

Netflix was different. From their customer data they could tell that enough viewers would watch so they commissioned 2 entire series outright. What’s more, they released each complete series at once, giving the customer complete control over how and when they watch.

So they made data-driven decisions, with an element of risk, but more importantly they put the needs of their customers first and right at the heart of their decision-making process. As a result they completely disrupted the traditional model of commissioning.

I and some colleagues saw how Netflix works when I visited their headquarters in the US West Coast last year. The lack of top down management and bureaucracy was evident – people didn’t have to jump through hoops to get things done.

…You sometimes hear civil servants saying that for every 1 person trying to do something, there are 4 trying to stop it…I see some nodding in the audience. I saw in Netflix how teams were empowered to make immediate changes. I asked them how many times they released new code – they said about a dozen times a week.

I asked them what process they go through for developing the code. The answer none. It’s all very modular. If they don’t work, they simply undo it and try again or move on to something better. No process, just constant restless desire to innovate, and iterate and improve.

It’s the culture of “move fast and break things” – “Fail small, fail fast”.

Never stop trying new things. If you don’t try new things that don’t work, you don’t try new things. Great organisations learn more from what you try that doesn’t work than you do from things that do work.

So that’s the culture we need. It’s the same culture in the Government Digital Service.

It’s not the dress code that makes GDS different. Nor the prevalence of bunting or post-its or beards and all that… it’s the culture of experimentation and innovation; of speed and agility; a culture that shapes the entire way we design and deliver public services.

So this isn’t the end; it’s only beginning. GDS must never been swallowed up by Whitehall, it should be the other way around. GDS is the catalyst for the change we need across the public sector.


So we can be proud I think to be at the forefront of digital government worldwide. We’ve achieved a huge amount over the past 5 years: more savings, better services, new opportunities for business.

But the internet is growing and changing all the time: new challenges and opportunities, new technologies and solutions, new ideas and experiences.

So the work goes on.

To put people first, with services that are simpler, clearer, faster.

To do more, and better, for less. And we’ve shown you can do it.

To build a truly 21st century digital government, capable of leading a world-beating digital economy.

Thank you.